Reflections by Jerry Webber

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dismantling Image and the Self's Illusions: Tiger is no different from us

Waiting in the grocery store checkout line this evening it was strange seeing that Brad and Angelina were not on the tabloid covers. Some things you just get used to in the ordinary run of life-events. For whatever reason, Brad and Angelina seemed to have monopolized the check-out line tabloids for several years now.

But a radio report this afternoon noted that for 16 days in a row, the New York Post ran a Tiger Woods-related cover story today. And sure enough, there he was, splashed all over the checkout line magazines in my neighborhood grocery.

For all the salacious material in the various rags, the one that caught my attention said simply, "Tiger Suicidal!" Who knows the truth of that headline. It was written in all likelihood to sell magazines and not to report "inside information." Is Tiger really suicidal? No one outside his inner circle would know. He has been reclusive since the car accident two weeks ago.

What is most apparent from the entire episode is that Tiger has deliberately cultivated a squeaky clean image. His extreme privacy has kept the public from knowing details of his personal life. By cultivating and attending to his public persona, Tiger has made hundreds of millions in endorsements. He is recognized around the world, and his image has provided a forum for his money-making machine.

The problem is that image and persona are never reality. They are illusory, built on the information and person we project into the outer world. Image and persona are manipulated impressions that we cast into the world in order to influence how we are perceived. They have little or nothing to do with what is most real or most deeply within a person. Instead, they have to do with manipulating opinion, with the way we are presented to others.

In the spiritual life, the phrases for this image and persona is the false self, the illusory self, or the ego self. At the root of this part of ourselves is the desire to control what people think about us, how others see us. We all do this, in hundreds, even thousands of ways. They are ways that we've learned from infancy and childhood to throw a particular image into the world.

As children some of these images served to protect us from harm. They helped us make sense of a difficult and dangerous world. They helped us cope when, as children, we did not have the spiritual, emotional, or psychological tools to handle all that life threw at us.

One difficulty in this projection is that we often start to believe the illusion of the persona we are casting into the world. We believe our press clippings, so to speak. Without a solid sense of who we are on the inside, we believe the illusions we've cultivated. Either that, or we live in deathly fear that the reality beneath the illusions will be exposed.

Obviously I don't know what is going on within Tiger Woods' home during these days he has holed himself up there with therapists and relational experts and p.r. persons scrambling to save his image. But the headline that said, "Tiger Suicidal!" was no surprise. For any of us, when the illusions of the false self get exposed, it comes at a price of extreme embarrassment and utter humiliation. Our ego takes such a tremendous hit as this image we have projected gets dismantled that we can honestly not know who we are any more.

It can be literally the most painful and difficult experience of life. While not in Tiger's shoes, I've had my share of embarrassment and humiliation through the years. I've been there several times myself. Even a couple of weeks ago I found myself utterly humiliated over a stupid comment I made to another person, exposing my fragile ego and plummeting me into a deep depressive state for a period of time.

But mostly what I want to say is that this humiliation, which feels like the end of life as we know it -- Tiger considering suicide, if true, would not be uncharacteristic -- may be one of the greatest gifts we can ever receive. The humiliations reveal to us all the false systems we've invested in. They show us how we've built our lives on illusions. So the humiliations themselves have a dismantling function. They have the power, if we'll let them do their work, to take apart the false ideas about ourselves we've projected into the world. They can bring us back to reality about ourselves.

To do so, though, we have to receive the humiliations and explore them, question them.

"Why has this experience humiliated me?"

"What raw nerve has this humiliation touched off in me?"

"What is left of me after this humiliation?" (The humiliation is never about our essence or our core. It is most always about what we have projected outward to others about ourselves, and thus is at the periphery of life. The deepest, most soulful part of us can always withstand humiliation. In fact, it often revels in them, because it gives us an opportunity to live more soulfully.)

"Why am I embarrassed that others are seeing this truth about me? In other words, why am I humiliated that they see that the life I have projected is an illusion?"

In truth, so much of life is given to image and illusion. I hear churches talk about the image they want to project to the community around them. Rarely have I heard a church talk about how they want the community to see who they really are. (Mercy Street at Chapelwood UMC is a life-giving exception.)

In corporate life, companies want to present an image that will draw clients and customers. As with an upscale meal, presentation is everything.

I've said before that St. Francis of Assisi, among others, prayed for one humiliation a day. It was his way of staying grounded, of being reminded that he didn't have to live out of the images and personas that people had of him. He could be real, and in being real could make a real difference. It was his way of noticing all the illusions and pretenses that were a part of life, a way of cutting through the lies about himself and living out of his truth.

Humiliation is not easy to talk about. It is hard. It's difficult. It's also an underrated spiritual discipline if we're going to live an authentic, honest, real spiritual life.

1 comment:

Pete the Brit said...

A good reminder, humiliation is a bitter pill that can do a lot of healing if I allow it too.